Less than three years ago, Nicolo Zaniolo became the youngest Italian to score a brace in the Champions League. At the end of that same season, he was named Serie A’s Young Player of the Year. Controversies off the pitch and two ACL injuries later, and the Roma midfielder is struggling to find back his form. Recently, José Mourinho has even suggested that Zaniolo should think about leaving Serie A. Where did it all go wrong, and how can Roma unlock the 22-year-old’s full potential?
Unlocking Nicolo Zaniolo
The Rise and the Fall
Nicolo Zaniolo was considered one of the brightest prospects in Italy after he burst onto the scene during the 2018/19 season. His rise to the top was unexpected, as he only arrived at Roma from Inter Milan in a deal revolving around Radja Nainggolan.
His debut against Real Madrid in the Champions League raised many eyebrows despite the 3-0 loss. He backed up that performance with other great appearances and was finally rewarded with his first Serie A goal. It exemplified everything Zaniolo was about: pace, strength and class. The midfielder made the jump from cannon fodder in a transfer to the pivotal point of a squad.
Giallorossi fans had hope of finding their new generational talent to lead the team to its former glory. Zaniolo doubled down in the following season, chipping in with eight goal contributions. His promising season was ended by an injury against Juventus in January 2020.
Like the majority of players hit with an ACL injury, the road to recovery was, and in truth still is, challenging. Zaniolo suffered another tear on the same knee in an international game just eight months after his first incident. Ever since, the Italian playmaker has been riddled with injuries, already missing six games due to other problems in 2021/22. A lack of consistency and durability is apparent, rarely being able to play a full 90 minutes under Mourinho.
Where Do Roma Go From Here?
Obviously, Nicolo Zaniolo is still a first-team quality player. Is he the right first-team quality player for Roma however? So far this season, he has mostly played as a right-winger, but having lost his first quick step due to injuries, Zaniolo often finds himself isolated and forced to cut into his favoured left foot instead of exploding along the line, much like his famous goal against Sassuolo.
A more central role seems better suited for him, for example in the Atalanta game this season, where Zaniolo scored his first goal when almost playing as a second striker alongside Tammy Abraham. His playmaking abilities and very powerful shot are clearly wasted when outside. The issue is that captain Lorenzo Pellegrini is currently in the form of his life playing as a more classic number ten. Mourinho’s preferred 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 don’t allow two central attacking midfielders.
Three options then remain. Keeping Zaniolo as an inverted winger without exploiting his full potential, but benefiting the rest of the team. Playing Zaniolo as a second striker, rendering him more effective individually, but not as effective as a natural number nine like Eldor Shomurodov how was brought in the summer. Finally, Roma could opt to bench Zaniolo and bring him later in games to take advantage of his work-rate. However, that would mean wasting one of the best footballers technically speaking at the club.
In the current Mourinho system, unlocking the mystery that is Nicolo Zaniolo seems like an impossible task. Can the legendary manager figure it out, or are Roma looking at a very difficult decision to make in the summer in selling him, essentially giving up on what once was the best prospect in the country?